Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Metaphor and Truth

That's the title of Chapter 8 in Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff and Johnson. In this chapter they seek to dismantle the traditional theory of metaphor, which they outline as follows:
  1. Metaphor is a matter of words, not thought. Metaphor occurs when a word is applied not to what it normally designates, but to something else.
  2. Metaphorical language is not part of ordinary conventional language. Instead, it is novel and typically arises in poetry, rhetorical attempts at persuasion, and scientific discovery.
  3. Metaphorical language is deviant. In metaphor, words are not used in their proper senses.
  4. Conventional metaphorical expressions in ordinary everyday language are "dead metaphors," that is, expressions that once were metaphorical, but have become frozen into literal expressions.
  5. Metaphors express similarities. That is, there are preexisting similarities between what words normally designate and what they designate when they are used metaphorically.
"This theory," they claim, "is deeply rooted in the Western philosophical tradition and makes intuitive sense to many people, because it fits an extremely common folk theory about language and truth."

When I was studying Paul Churchland's work in college, I found phrases like "folk psychology" being used, just as "folk theory" is used here, as if to indicate that the average "folk" really have such a quaint Aristotelian view of the world. If only we would catch up with the recent discoveries of modern science.

Philosophers ever live under the illusion that any idea which is validated by modern science must therefore be modern. In reality, none of the above points make "intuitive sense" to me or, I suspect, any common person who fully understood what was being said. Of course we all use metaphors, all the time. Lakoff and Johnson have done a fine job in their book of showing just how numerous the examples are which illustrate how many of our concepts are built out of controlling metaphors, such as "life is journey" or "love is a car ride" or "knowing is seeing" or "knowing is grasping." But the fact that these simple, ordinary examples are readily available suggests that it never really did require the amazing advances of modern science to realize how blind the philosophers always were to the vanity of their theories of cognition.

The average person goes through life with her thoughts guided by a rich collection of metaphor. The fact that she is not fully aware of this is hardly due to an assumption that all truth is literal; quite the opposite, in fact. Perhaps what they tried to teach us in schools is that all truth must be literal, but most of us never really got that.

And this is not to say that the average person just doesn't think about things. Perhaps secularism has blinded the philosophers to the most glaring example in Western culture of metaphorical concepts being used constantly: Christianity. Biblical theology is rich with metaphor: God is our Father, an eagle under whose wings we hide, a husband dismayed by his adulterous wife, a warrior, a consuming fire, a roaring wind; Christ is the Word, the Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah, the Door, the Way, the Truth (!), the Light; the Spirit is a dove, a breath, a sword, a comforter. Anyone who is steeped in the Christian tradition can use all of these metaphors quite seriously; it's not as if they're mere comparisons. "The Father," "the Son," and even "the Holy Spirit," are all actually metaphorical, and yet they are also firm matters of doctrine--these are not simply poetry. Every Christian instinctively knows that we simply cannot know anything about God without metaphor. Nor can we really know anything about ourselves: mankind is dust, made in the image of God, children of God, slaves to sin; the church is the bride of Christ, the elect of God, the new humanity, the justified ones, the called out ones. Need I mention all the parables with which Jesus explained the Kingdom of Heaven?

As Lakoff and Johnson rightly point out, these metaphors aren't just a matter of word, but of thought. They aren't just poetry; they are common language meant to be understood by the common person. They aren't deviant; on the contrary, they are indispensable. They aren't "dead;" they are meant to continue to guide our thinking. And they aren't merely about expressing similarities, since that which is being described cannot be fully understood independent from the use of metaphor, and since many of these metaphors are at first glance mutually incompatible.

It is true that some Christian thought throughout the ages has tended to accept the philosophical paradigm that truth should be literal, and they have sought to map out literal meanings of all these concepts. The result has been piles and piles of books written in the hopes of systematically expressing theological truths. Curious, though, how the Bible itself wasn't written that way. It is the Bible, after all, which has authority in the Church, and not Augustine, or Aquinas, or Barth.

To me there seems a great irony here. Because our theological though requires the use of so many metaphorical concepts, modern man has assumed that the Church doesn't know what she is talking about. Or more absurd still, some have understood her to be speaking literally, as if her understanding of God really were so shallow! (See, e.g. Pastafarianism.)

And now here come Lakoff and Johnson, equipped with the power of modern cognitive science, giving themselves the task of challenging the entire Western philosophical tradition with a theory of human cognition that Christians have been implicitly using for centuries. What a great victory for science.

I have focused on Christianity here because metaphors are so obviously abundant and active in the life of Christians. Yet Lakoff and Johnson themselves point out the ways in which all of us use metaphor as a key cognitive component of our lives. I suspect that "folk theory about language and truth" really is nothing like what Lakoff and Johnson--and other philosophers who fancy their profession far more influential than it really is--have described. The beauty of "folk theory" is that it really does not need to be consciously formulated. "Folks" can just go on living according to assumptions which never need to be stated, yet which work far better than any theory devised by philosophers, ancient or modern. I would almost suggest we're better off the less we think about our most fundamental presuppositions. Almost.

In all fairness, Lakoff and Johnson have touched upon some very good insights. I just think they have neglected to identify these new insights as ancient. Cognitive science will surely help us to understand the mind better. Great. But don't promise me some overhaul of our entire way of thinking about the mind and then tell me something I already know.

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